Online Reading Comprehension


Author and teacher Kevin Hodgson offers some insight about what it’s like as we move towards an increasingly digitized world. Read his article below.

Strategies for Online Reading Comprehension

Imagine, if you will, that you are beside me as I peer over the shoulder of my twelve-year-old son. He’s using a web browser to search for an article on creating stop-motion movies, which is one of his hobbies. I barely have time to say, “That looks interesting,” before he has clicked on a hyperlink and is off on entirely different page. A video catches his eye and he ignores me completely as he hits the “play” button, only to discover the video is a commercial for an upcoming movie. I want to say something, but I don’t have time. The mouse works its magic, and he is off again, this time in full reverse, clicking on arrows that direct him back to the original page. I keep silent now, watching him scan the article for the headlines in bold. Then he is following yet another link to yet another page.

And so it goes.

As a culture, we traditionally think of reading in terms of sounding out words, understanding the meaning of those words, and putting those words into some contextual understanding. Is this new kind of activity my son embodies even “reading”? It’s a question worth asking.

And yet, if you read The National Council of Teachers of English’s definition of reading, you’ll recognize some semblance of what my son was doing, even as he jumped here and there with the mouse:

Readers read for different purposes. Sometimes they read for pleasure. Sometimes they read for information. Their reason for reading impacts the way they read. They may skim or read carefully depending on why they are reading. Throughout this process, readers monitor the meaning they are constructing. When the text does not meet their purposes, they may switch to another text. Readers expect what they are reading to make sense. They use a repertoire of strategies, such as rethinking, re-reading or reading on to clarify ideas, to make sure they understand what they read in order to accomplish their purposes.[1]

This NCTE definition notes that “When the text does not meet their purposes, they may switch to another text,” and that seemed on the surface to be what my son was up to. But I wonder if he knew what he was doing. Could he articulate why he was making the choices he was making? In short, no. He could not. He has not yet developed the information-synthesizing skills and understanding of the medium to make those connections.

If the kind of text we are encountering in these online travels is embedded with so many links and media, and if those texts are connected to other associated pages (with even more links and media), hosted by who-knows-whom, the act of reading online quickly becomes an act of hunting for treasure, with red herrings all over the place that can easily divert our attention. 

Perhaps it would help to first examine the ways in which the two reading environments differ: How is traditional, in-class reading different from online reading? The following list was put together through a crowd-sourcing effort on Twitter by a handful of teachers.

Traditional reading

(in school)

Online reading

Writers/sources are typically deemed authoritative by virtue of being published.

Because it’s easy for anyone to publish online, authority of information typically merits more evaluation.

Information typically consists only of text, sometimes with images.

Hyperlinks, images, audio, and video are usually part of the reading experience.

Information typically flows sequentially (from the first word of the text to the last).

Information can flow non-sequentially (one word might lead via hyperlink to an entire new piece of reading).

Reading is focused on one page at a time — choice of the reader is limited.

Reading can be interactive (reader response possibilities, potentially limitless decisions about where to go with the text, etc.).

Given that we are reading more online, and are experiencing these kinds of fluid information environments, it seems that we need to find ways to process the information we are finding, and how to find it with more precision and understanding. Here are few ideas that might be helpful.

Reading strategies

Colorado State University offers a useful guide to reading on the web. The following list includes some of the CSU strategies to strengthen reading comprehension:

  • Synthesize online reading into meaningful chunks of information. Use summarizing and reviewing techniques to put a text’s ideas into your own words.
  • Scan a page, as opposed to reading every word. Using your eye to sift through key words and phrases allows you to focus on what is important.
  • Avoid distractions as much as necessary. Readability is one tool that can make this possible. Advertising-blocking tools are another effective way to reduce unnecessary, and unwanted, content from a web page. 
  • Understand the value of a hyperlink before you click the link. This means reading the destination of the link itself. It is easier if the creator of the page puts the hyperlink into context, but if that is not the case, then you have to make a judgment about the value, safety, and validity of the link. 
  • Navigate a path from one page in a way that is clear and logical.